Accessible and imperfect, American Catholics is discomforting to left and right

Though marred by a liberal bias and sociological reductionism, Leslie Tentler’s new book is a state-of-the-art narrative synthesis of the last half-century of scholarship in U.S. Catholic history.

Readers of this journal are no doubt aware of the recent traditionalist attacks on the theological orthodoxy of the Second Vatican Council. This theological critique generally carries with it some version of the following historical narrative: since the Council of Trent, the Church had stood united against the various errors of modernity, including the Reformation, the Enlightenment and theological Modernism, only to abandon this heroic defiance and capitulate to secular modernity at Vatican II.

The more folksy, American version renders this story: everything was great in the Church in the 1950s and then liberals/radicals took over the Church at Vatican II and destroyed everything in the 1960s. Sadly, most American Catholics know very little about what the Church in America was like in the 1950s or in any time before that.

Those seeking historical literacy concerning the Church in the United States would do well to read Leslie Tentler’s American Catholics: A History. Though marred by a liberal bias, the book is a state-of-the-art narrative synthesis of the last half-century of scholarship in U.S. Catholic history and provides a general reader with an accessible starting point for reflecting on how we American Catholics have gotten to where we are today.

Tentler’s is the latest—most likely the last—and surely the best of a series of general narrative histories written by Catholic academics inspired by one particular interpretation of the meaning of Vatican II. Beginning with Jay Dolan’s The American Catholic Experience (1985), these histories have told a story that goes something like this: Catholics arrived in the English colonies a persecuted minority dedicated to the promotion of religious freedom; at the Founding of the United States, American Catholics promoted a new vision of the Church in which the laity would share leadership roles with the clergy and foster an enlightened, tolerant Catholicism appropriate to the pluralistic setting of the new nation; for the next century and a half, mass immigration and papal intransigence combined to replace this beau idéal with an anti-intellectual clericalism demanding absolute submission by the laity; Vatican II arrived to liberate the laity for one brief shining moment until the conservative reaction initiated by the pontificate of John Paul II.

Though I am not persuaded by this big story, Tentler’s version of it nonetheless contains many invaluable little stories—some inspiring, some disheartening—that comprise a kind of essential narrative vocabulary for understanding the history of the Church in the United States.

Tentler structures her book according to the conventional chronology bequeathed by her predecessors, with one notable twist: she begins each chronological division with a vignette—or “profile,” to use her term—of a significant Catholic whose life captures the main currents of the period. This is a welcomed advance over earlier treatments in terms of accessibility. Often disparaged by scholars, biography remains the most popular form of general history. Tentler’s profiles speak to this appeal while also, intentionally or not, suggesting ways in which modern scholarship might reinvigorate the traditional genre of the saint’s life. Neither hagiographical nor overly critical, these profiles are engaging, respectful treatments of devoted Catholics—if not themselves quite aids to devotion.

The first section, “On the Fringes of Empire,” covers the colonial period and takes as a representative figure the missionary Eusebio Kino, S.J. Kino lived a century or so before the founding of the United States yet earned a place in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall as a founder of Arizona. Kino’s evangelization efforts crossed what are now state and national borders but in his time were simply the most remote western and northern fringes of territories claimed by the kings of Spain. Tentler departs from earlier histories in limiting the Spanish roots of the United States to areas within current U.S. borders—so, she begins her narrative proper with La Florida and St. Augustine, not Columbus and San Salvador.

Still, the choice of Kino points to issues more profound and troubling than that of geographic borders. The Spanish colonial period saw an alliance of evangelization and empire that remains controversial today. Tentler presents Kino as a man committed to this alliance, as indeed he was. She writes somewhat aloof from the current fashion of reducing evangelization to empire, but notes that Kino never remained in one place long enough to have to engage in the hard work of disciplining required to convert native pagans into Spanish Christians. When she turns to a figure such as St. Junipero Serra, who did engage in that hard work, she stops short of rhetorically tearing down his statue only by insisting that in the end, these missionary efforts failed to eradicate native beliefs, much less native culture.

Inculturation—the synthesis of the universal truths of Catholic faith with the particularities of pagan cultures—has been part of the life of the Church from the very beginning. The Christianization of particular cultures has always been the work of centuries. The resulting cultural diversity has enriched the life of the Church. Instead of rooting New World evangelization in this historical tradition, Tentler celebrates the persistence of paganism as heroic resistance. At the end of her chapter on “Spain’s North American Frontier,” she tells the story of visit of the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson to Serra’s Mission San Carlos in 1879. Stevenson, a Victorian atheist, attended Mass on a feast day and was deeply impressed by the devotion of the Native Americans, which including chanting in Latin. Tentler’s gloss? Stevenson failed to understand the ways in which “mission Indians were able to appropriate Catholicism on their own terms”.

She then abruptly jumps ahead to our own time to praise the continued vitality of the cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe for enabling Native Americans to experience “pride” in “their Indian past” and serving a “healing role for recent waves of Hispanic immigrants to a not-always-welcoming United States”. Native and Latino piety no doubt serves these cultural functions, but in Tentler’s account it seems to serve no other—such as devotion to the actual Virgin Mary and her son, Jesus Christ. Tentler’s personal understanding of these devotions aside, she fails the religious historian’s test of taking the supernatural aspects of faith in their own terms—in the way, for example, a political historian might be expected to take political ideas seriously and not reduce them to something other than politics. Her chapter on Jesuit evangelization in New France follows a similar pattern of sociological reductionism.

The final chapter of this section, on “Catholicism in the British Colonies” moves away from the clash of cultures in native evangelization to the fate of Catholicism within the Protestant, Enlightenment culture that would shape the United States of America. This chapter reveals the central interpretive contradiction of the rest of her account: after celebrating the resistance of natives to uplift by European Catholic civilization, she consistently criticizes American Catholics for failing to embrace uplift to the standards of secular modernity. Like her predecessors, Tentler sees the colonial and early national period as a lost opportunity. On the one hand, she concedes that “anti-Catholicism permeated colonial culture and to a large extent defined it”; on the other, she praises the ability of Catholics to accommodate this culture through the creation of what she calls “Enlightenment Catholicism”.

The key figure here is, of course, John Carroll, the first bishop of the Diocese of Baltimore, which in 1789 comprised the whole of the United States. Carroll famously pleaded with Rome that he be elected by American priests rather than appointed by the Pope: his motives included wishing to reflect the republican principles of the new nation, fear that Roman interference would spark anti-Catholicism and his own desire for greater independence (if not separation) from Roman authority. In all these aspects, Carroll passes Tentler’s test for enlightenment.

Still, Carroll was opposed to lay control of church property through the trustee system and doubted the ability of lay piety to thrive apart from clerical supervision. Most disturbingly for Tentler, he remained committed to clerical celibacy, which left him with a “limited existential grasp of life as most laity knew it”. That Tentler introduces this last point, which unlike the trustee controversy was never a serious issue at the time, speaks to the interpretive agenda that unfortunately mars what is otherwise a crisp, concise account of the course of the Church in the United States. The tremendous drama of this story, in both its heroism and pettiness, gets obscured by the recurring editorial voice of a disgruntled, Vatican II liberalism, bitterly obsessed with the Church’s commitment to its traditional teaching on sex.

Despite this liberalism’s supposed “preferential option for the poor,” Tentler laments how mass immigration—that is, the influx of uneducated, unenlightened peasants from Europe—“doomed” the best of Carroll’s efforts to forge a new kind of Church in the United States. The Church of the immigrant era (roughly the 1830s to the 1930s) would be “insular and defensive,” anti-modern, and Rome-centered. Thus, an account that begins with praising the pagan tribalism of Native Americans proceeds with a consistent critique of the ethno-religious tribalism of Catholics living in a country that consistently viewed them with contempt and suspicion.

Still, Tentler’s book remains essential reading even for those who might not share her interpretive slant. It would be impossible to do justice to the scope of her work in a short review, though the profiles that introduce the subsequent sections give some sense of her priorities. For “Growing with the Nation, 1815-1870,” she chooses Samuel Mazzuchelli, O.P., a missionary serving both Native- and Euro-American communities in the upper Midwest from the 1820s to the 1850s. The choice of Mazzuchelli, despite the “evanescence” of his ministry in a rapidly urbanizing nation, seems an intentional choice to de-center the immigrant Church narrative of earlier histories. In this section, the urban ethnic story competes with chapters on “The Frontier Church” and “Slavery and the Civil War.”

For “A Turbulent Passage, 1871-1919,” the choice of Mother Cabrini brings us back to the immigrant city. The profile of Mother Cabrini is but one instance of Tentler’s justified concern to highlight the contributions of women religious to building the Church in America. Still, praise for women religious serves a presentist agenda. Though conceding their spiritual motivations, Tentler praises women religious most as proto-professionals, precursors to people like—well, Leslie Tentler. Celibacy, so often the target of Tentler’s scorn, finds a positive purpose in that enabled women religious to achieve a degree of institutional autonomy from direct male authority. Indeed, autonomy—sexual, social, intellectual—repeatedly serves as the standard by which Tentler judges all people and movements within the Church.

Thus, the section that begins with Mother Cabrini ends with a chapter on Rome’s persistent suspicion of America’s democratic ways and the defeat of those Church leaders who wished to have the Church assimilate to American institutional norms.

Much of Tentler’s account of Catholicism in the twentieth century focuses on the fate of democracy within the Church. The last section, “A World Unbound, 1963-2015,” begins with a profile of Patricia Caron Crowley: co-founder of the Christian Family Movement, bitter opponent of Humanae Vitae and for Tentler a model of the empowered laity envisioned by her interpretation of Vatican II. Tentler writes to carry the torch of the Patty Crowleys of the Church in an age which, by her account, has seen only a dying of the light. Still, her account makes clear how the struggles within the Church since the 1960s track seamlessly with similar struggles outside the Church: the issue is not the triumph of liberalism or conservatism within the Church, but the triumph of both over the Church.

That is, Catholics have largely become indistinguishable from other Americans and understand their faith according to the limits of political ideology: liberal Catholics support social justice and abortion, conservative Catholics preach pro-choice economics yet oppose the free choice of abortion. The Church, at least in public life, no longer seems to matter.

In undoubtedly the warmest, most human section of the book, Tentler, an adult convert to Catholicism, reflects on her non-Catholic childhood in Michigan during the 1950s. Her parents were educated liberals and possessed the genetic anti-Catholicism of that class. Still, Tentler grew up “with a sense that Catholicism mattered”. By this, she clearly means it mattered as a social-political entity; fear of Catholic political power stoked the anti-Catholicism of her parents more than objection to any particular Catholic doctrine. The unified, fortress Catholicism of 1959 died in the 1960s, though as Tentler’s account shows, the seeds of that dissolution were already growing strong in the 1950s: Patty Crowley was, after all, a model suburban Catholic mom.

Tentler’s history gives comfort neither to those wishing to restore 1959 or those committed to flogging its dead horse. Intentionally or not, her account shows that the tremendous institutional achievements of the Catholic Church in America may have come at the cost of failing to nurture souls. The catechetical rigor of the 1950s left Catholics informed, but not transformed. Perhaps the fall of the Church’s American Jerusalem may be a call to return to, in the words of Bishop Robert Barron, the priority of Christ.

American Catholics: A History
by Leslie Woodcock Tentler
Yale University Press, 2020
Hardcover, 416 pages

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About Dr. Christopher Shannon 24 Articles
Dr. Christopher Shannon is a member of the History Department at Christendom College, where he interprets the narrative of Christian history from its foundations in the Old Testament and its heroic beginnings in the Church of the Martyrs, down through the ages to the challenges of the post-modern world. His books include Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in Modern American Social Thought (Johns Hopkins, 1996), Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema (University of Scranton Press, 2010), and with Christopher O. Blum, The Past as Pilgrimage: Narrative, Tradition and the Renewal of Catholic History (Christendom Press, 2014). His book American Pilgrimage: A Historical Journey through Catholic Life in a New World was published in June 2022 by Ignatius Press.


  1. I am as unsure what a “Liberal” Catholic is as I am a “Conservative” Catholic. It seems to me that a Catholic either believes all that the Catholic Church teaches or she does not. The question I’d ask of Tentler is: “Do believe all that the Catholic Church teaches?”

    What’s critical for me to know about a Catholic historian is whether they think that society ought to inform the Church or whether the Church ought to inform society. It would be of interest to me if one of our Catholic historians analyzed the history of Catholicism in America along this dimension.

  2. “Marred by a liberal bias”. That’s all I need to know. Marshallling a ton of facts in the service of a lie does not a good book make. And let’s stop with the attempts at moral equivalence between liberals and conservatives. Right is right and left is wrong, and the muddle in the middle is a useless distraction.

    • That is the trouble. If a person already has a good grasp of church history, they should read leftist narratives. Because even leftists have a good idea once in a while, or can give us new information we did not know. If you already have a good grasp of church history, then you will be able to spot the leftist bias and ignore it. However, if a reader does not have a good grasp of church history, then they may be misled into believing a great many things that are not true. So it depends on the reader.

  3. I don’t know how Ms. Tentler can ‘”praise the continued vitality of the cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe for enabling Native Americans to experience “pride” in “their Indian past” and serving a “healing role for recent waves of Hispanic immigrants to a not-always-welcoming United States”’. How did she arrive at such a conclusion? What methodology did she use? Where’s the data? Is Ms. Tentler not aware of the mass flight of Catholics in Central and South America to Pentecostal / Evangelical expressions of Christianity? In 2014, Pew Research reported that Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras had Protestant populations of 40%, 41%, and 40% respectively. If the attrition rate has remained constant over the last six years, those percentages are higher in 2020. I don’t think these people kept alive any former Marian devotion. I think her statement is simply an impression she has about the religious beliefs of Latin America and has no scholarly underpinnings.

  4. “Still, Tentler’s book remains essential reading even for those who might not share her interpretive slant.”

    Time and money are limited and should be spent on better things and more important priorities as rough times are ahead.

  5. To be fair, traditional Catholics do not see the 1950’s state of the Church as ideal. In fact, “1950’s-ism” is often condemned. Sure, things were better back then, but the rot was already there; thus explaining the way Vatican 2 was implemented by those same 1950’s Catholics. This crisis is much older and deeper than just Vatican 2 and/or the bad implementation of the Council.

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